Well Read Black Girl

by Glory Edim

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Introduction

All the books in my library hold a memory. When I was a child, they fulfilled promises and offered me a clear view of worlds—both real and imagined. My earliest memory is of my mother reading Eloise Greenfield’s Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems. She would hold me in a tight embrace as we lay in
bed. Our nighttime ritual was complete after reading several poems, where she emphasized the word love in every stanza. Honey, I Love served as an ode to my childhood, and I recognized myself immediately on the page; a Black girl with wide eyes, full lips, and thick braided hair. The book was my first introduction to poetry that was full of rhythm and everyday language. I was delighted to learn that my trip to the grocery
store could be a poem. Greenfield’s use of prose is simple and memorable: her vision unyielding. At five years old, I was proud to be Black.

Eloise Greenfield’s poetry, and the reflection of myself I saw in her pages, gently led me toward authors like Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou—and many more. The authentic and captivating stories created by these authors have been passed down from one generation of Black women to the next, and the next. In reading them myself, getting to know them in my own way, their books and profound literary legacy have become my inheritance.

Can you recall your first encounter with The Bluest Eye, Their Eyes Were Watching God, or The Color Purple? Those are the memories that pull Black women toward one another and solidify our unspoken sisterhood. Reading highlights the intersection of narrative and self-image to create compelling explorations of identity. Reading allows us to witness ourselves. Being a reader is an incredible gift, providing me with a lens to interpret the world. Most important, it has invigorated my imagination and allowed me to choose which narratives I want to center and hold close.

In her essay “The Reader As Artist,” Toni Morrison described the act of reading this way:

That Alice-in-Wonderland combination of willing acceptance coupled with intense inquiry is still the way I read literature: slowly, digging for the hidden, questioning or relishing the choices the author made, eager to envision what is there, noticing what is not. In listening and in reading, it is when I surrender to the language, enter it, that I see clearly. Yet only if I remain attentive to its choices can I understand deeply. Sometimes the experience is profound, harrowing, beautiful; other times enraging, contemptible, unrewarding. Whatever the consequence, the practice itself is riveting.

Yes, the practice itself is riveting—it’s always been that way for me. I continued to read more and more stories, and, growing up, I developed an unrelenting trust in my authors.

The sentences they gave me offered satisfaction and a new-found self-awareness. The worlds they created allowed me to look for parallels in my own life. With every book I read by a Black woman, I attempted to fully acknowledge my own triumphs, fears, and pain, without reservation. I learned to understand the significance of Pecola Breedlove, Janie Crawford, and Celie. Their fictional experiences were different from mine, yet their voices offered a reflection that I desperately needed. Along with so many young women, I connected to these characters’ justifiable yearning for love and gained tremendous strength from their courage. I discovered character-revealing moments that went to the heart of who I was.

When I was a freshman at Howard University in Washington, D.C., I worked as a reading instructor at Maya Angelou Public Charter School. I was drawn to the school because of its namesake. I had already read Angelou’s 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, twice by then. The first time was rather theatrically in the seventh grade. I recited the chapters aloud to my unassuming baby brother, Maurice. We both stumbled through the coming-of-age story and understood little of the childhood trauma she encountered. Yet I read it intently because I was intrigued by the relationship between Maya and her brother, Bailey. At twelve years old, I was seeking my self in her story, looking for the parallels in our childhoods. The second reading happened when I was much older. I was nineteen and fully aware of Maya Angelou’s legacy. I knew she had been San Francisco’s first Black female streetcar conductor at age sixteen. I knew she had been close friends with James Baldwin and worked with Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She was iconic. A civil rights activist, dancer, actress, journalist, and of course world-renowned author. This time Angelou’s distinct voice was clear in my head, and her words resonated in a visceral way. As I read about her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas, my tears flowed endlessly. I cried for her pain and for her triumphs. The relentlessness of racism that plagued her childhood, the sexual abuse she suffered, the way literature helped her to regain her voice when all seemed lost.

After reading her memoir, something in my heart and mind clicked, and forever changed me. I suddenly understood that her story was part of the larger story of Black womanhood and survival. She wrote openly about injustice, celebrated Black motherhood, criticized racism in the Jim Crow South, and unequivocally fought for her own personal freedom. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a powerful story of self-definition.

Maya Angelou, and the rest of the inspiring authors I’ve encountered throughout my life, have taught me that, as Black women, we define ourselves for ourselves. When you tell us we can’t, we simply resist and defy expectations. Our stories are filled with love, strength, and resilience. We are not looking for anyone else to give us validation; because we have one another. We celebrate one another. We have a tenacity and grace that is unparalleled. In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, she writes, “We had defended ourselves since memory against everything and everybody, considered all speech a code to be broken by us, and all gestures subject to careful analysis; we had become head-strong, devious, and arrogant. Nobody paid us any attention, so we paid very good attention to ourselves. Our limitations were not known to us—not then.” Instinctively, we Black women writers have always had to take care of ourselves. Creating our own limitless boundaries, whether we explore taboos, stereotypes, the theoretical idea of love, or the literary canon itself. We are writing ourselves into spaces that neglect or ignore us. Head-strong. A necessary quality to withstand the losses and celebrate the victories.

I created Well-Read Black Girl because I wanted to develop a creative space where Black women’s voices could be centered. Storytelling is an extension of our sisterhood. From the beginning, I’ve dedicated WRBG to the phenomenal Black women on our bookshelves. Yet it is also a call to action for Black
women to freely define their own narratives on their own terms. Like Morrison states in Beloved, “Definitions belong to the definer, not the defined.” I wanted a place to build on the radical notion that Black women can read, write, and be whatever and whomever they desire.

For my thirty-first birthday, my partner, Opiyo, gifted me a custom-designed T-shirt. It was chocolate brown, and he emblazoned the words “Well-Read Black Girl” onto the fabric, with the phrase “Erudita Puella Africae” (Educated Girls in Africa). Right in the middle was an emblem with my birth date, along with my favorite authors, including Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker. It was an inside joke between the two of us—I read a lot and always had a book with me in bed; the idea was that I was the well-read Black girl.

Every time I wore this shirt, I would have Black women coming up to me, asking me questions and starting conversations. “Oh, what are you reading?” “Where’d you get your shirt?” It would lead to these wonderful discussions about who our favorite authors were and what books inspired us. I didn’t want those conversations to end, so in 2015 I created a Well-Read Black Girl Instagram account; the first post was an image of the T-shirt that was the catalyst for WRBG. No caption, no long manifesto. Just the shirt stating, “Well-Read Black Girl,” a simple yet powerful phrase to bring Black women writers—and readers—to the forefront.

I started to quote the powerful affirmations of my heroes in my posts online, inspired by the effect of seeing their words illuminated visually on social media. When creating the Instagram account, I was drawn to archival photos from the Black Arts movement, which included novelists and poets like Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Rosa Guy. Their photos have always asserted a sense of pride and collective empowerment. My hope was to share their powerful optimism online. I also shared photos of authors like Jamaica Kincaid, Zora Neale Hurston, and Gloria Naylor. I was surprised by the incredible response, online and off. Readers were hungry for book suggestions and inspiration from writers. Since those initial posts, Well-Read Black Girl has grown from a powerful message on a T-shirt to a nationwide book club to a one-of-a-kind literary festival in Brooklyn, New York, entirely focused on Black
women writers.

The whole movement has grown organically out of my mantra to remain authentic and practice vulnerability whole-heartedly. The work of Maya Angelou and many of our literary foremothers serves as an example of how your vulnerabilities can become your greatest strengths.

This book, Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves, is a tribute to the brilliant Black women who have made us, from the first published African American female poet, Phillis Wheatley, to legendary winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Alice Walker and Toni Mor-
rison. All of the writers in this anthology pay vibrant homage to the stories and storytellers who shaped their lives as creators. The essays in the following pages remind us of the magnificence of literature; how it can provide us with a vision of ourselves, affirm our talents, and ultimately help us narrate our own stories. Each contributor reveals how, as readers, as Black women, we are constantly seeking to define ourselves and discover our reflections in the pages of a book.

This anthology is for women who are emboldened to tell their own stories. It speaks to young girls who are developing their own sense of being and fearlessness. I was fortunate to inherit the words of Maya Angelou at the perfect time in my life, and they gave me a new sense of myself. And so the premise of this book begins with a simple question: When did you first see yourself in literature?

As the WRBG community grows, I want us all to continue to ask that question. It’s been forty-eight years since Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye. Her words have set the unyielding precedent in American literature. So many generations of Black women felt seen after reading her work, and I want WRBG to discuss and reflect upon the breadth of literary contributions from Black women writers. Along with Morrison’s masterpiece, we deserve an array of stories that illuminate all of the diverse, fluid, and multifaceted aspects of Black womanhood. My mission is to redefine what it means to be “well-read” and offer a radical and inclusive approach to the literary canon.

Thankfully, the legacy of Black women in literature is extensive, diverse, and beautifully complicated. Like any cultural lineage, its definitions, commonalities, and inspiration have shifted over time. The writing of Black women is always becoming, voices intertwining, forging an original, innovative
amalgamation.

Over the years, Black women have taken their rightful place at the forefront of American literature. With WRBG, I strive to galvanize readers and bring visibility to the narratives of Black women. I am very proud to be part of that cultural shift. The question of representation and equality in publishing remains an important and necessary one. In this collection, twenty-one Black women who hold diverse backgrounds and experiences share intimate memories around discovering literary reflections of themselves. They reveal what influences their craft, drives their curiosity, and defines their legacy. I am
guided and inspired by each of these women, and I count them among the writers who have transformed my life. Each individual provides a vision of the work I want to create in the world and gives me the courage to do so. Each elevates our truth and shines a light on the abundance of talent that exists. I am honored to share their stories with you.

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